Exceptional flair for cocktail fare

Posted: July 12, 2007

Cocktail nibbles are the ultimate in small bites, often just one bite, rarely more than two.

Because everything is focused on that one bite, the flavors and texture - and the visual appeal - should be exceptional.

To that end, a few homemade nibbles can turn what is often an afterthought into a satisfying - if simple - food event.

Trying to avoid anything too labor-intensive, yet still achieving the desired degree of near-perfection, led us to the bite-size cheese wafers, fried olives, and tempura-style string beans, recipes for which follow.

A few such items, prepped in advance and ready-to-serve or quick-fry when guests arrive, provide balance for the easier pre-cooked, no-cook or store-bought nibbles we've come to rely on as party fare.

A basket of homemade or high-end, ready-made root chips with a few gourmet dips - maybe personalized mixtures of guacamole, salsa, pesto and a soft cheese spread - will divert attention from the fact that the neatly arranged platter of grape tomatoes, baby snow peas, asparagus spears, multicolored pepper strips, fennel wedges, and crisp jicama sticks is really just a stylish crudite assortment.

The same goes for an upgraded selection of cheeses and crackers on another platter.

For variety, try rice crackers and a soybean or tofu-based spread.

For substance, you can't go wrong with chilled cooked shrimp. Or bite-size sandwiches - closed or open-faced (think canapes) - which border on being hors d'oeuvres, but are so popular even in mini sizes that they bear mention, especially when cocktail fare may take the place of a meal.

The menu at a recent World Cocktail Day event, for instance, included miniature Rubens on rye, and tiny lamb sliders with basil mint aioli. (Use canape cutters to achieve perfect mini slices from ultrathin cocktail breads or thinly sliced and toasted baguettes.)

Beer-Battered String Beans With Righteous Remoulade Sauce

Makes 6 servings

For the String Beans:

1 pound green beans

1 cup beer (not dark)

1 teaspoon salt

Juice of 1 lime

1 cup all-purpose flour

Oil for deep frying (4 cups)

For the Remoulade Sauce:

1 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup minced green onions

2 tablespoons Creole or whole-grain mustard

2 tablespoons ketchup

2 tablespoons minced parsley

2 tablespoons minced celery

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon each: prepared horseradish sauce, paprika and hot pepper sauce

2 limes, cut in wedges

1. For the String Beans, trim and discard the stalk ends.

2. In a bowl, whisk the beer, salt and lime juice into the flour until smooth but foamy. Dredge the beans in batter.

3. In a deep skillet, heat the oil to 375 degrees. About 10 to a batch, fry the beans until golden, about 1 minute. Repeat to cook all. Drain and cool on paper towels.

4. For the Remoulade Sauce, whisk all the ingredients together in a medium bowl. Cover and chill for 1 hour.

5. Serve the beans with remoulade and lime wedges.

- From Southern Cocktails by Denise Gee (Chronicle, 2007)

Per serving: 471 calories, 5 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 37 grams fat, 14 milligrams cholesterol, 746 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

Freddie Lee's Cheese Pennies

Makes about 5 dozen, up to 12 servings

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

21/2 cups grated sharp

cheddar cheese

1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, or more to taste

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

Pecan halves (optional)

1. With a fork, cream the butter. Blend in the cheddar cheese, Worcestershire and hot sauce.

2. Slowly stir in the flour until just blended. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and shape gently into a roll. Cover with plastic wrap. Chill at least 3 hours.

3. To proceed, cut the cold dough in half. Roll each half into a log about 1-inch thick. Heat oven to 350 degrees.

4. Cut each log into 1/4-inch-thick slices, press a pecan half into each if desired, place on a lightly greased baking sheet, and bake until golden and crisp, 10 to 15 minutes.

5. Store leftovers in an airtight container.

- From Southern Cocktails by Denise Gee (Chronicle, 2007)Per serving: 200 calories, 7 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 0.3 gram sugar, 16 grams fat, 45 milligrams cholesterol, 149 milligrams sodium, 0.3 gram dietary fiber.

Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at mmarter@phillynews.com

or 215-854-5743.

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